Constitutional Faces: Graydon Comstock

March 19th, 2012

USA Today has a piece about the federal government’s sexual offender civil commitment program, which was the subject of United States v. Comstock. There is a discussion of Graydon Comstock, of the eponymous Supreme Court case.

Six years ago, the federal government set out to indefinitely detain some of the nation’s most dangerous sex offenders, keeping them locked up even after their prison sentences had ended.

But despite years of effort, the government has so far won court approval for detaining just 15 men.

Far more often, men the U.S.Justice Departmentbranded as “sexually dangerous” predators, remained imprisoned here for years without a mandatory court hearing before the government was forced to let them go, a USA TODAY investigation has found. The Justice Department has either lost or dropped its cases against 61 of the 136 men it sought to detain. Some were imprisoned for more than four years without a trial before they were freed.

Dozens of others are still waiting for their day in court. They remain in a prison unit where authorities and former detainees said explicit drawings of children are commonplace, but where few of the men have received any treatment for the disorders that put them there.

Despite that, neither the Justice Department nor other watchdog agencies have offered any public assessment of how well the federal civil commitment law works.

For this investigation, USA TODAY reviewed all 136 cases that have been brought to court, drawing on thousands of pages of legal filings and dozens of interviews with attorneys, psychologists and former detainees.

And about Comstock:

One of those challenges, brought on behalf of a man named Graydon Comstock and four others, reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The justices upheld the law, finding that Congress “has the constitutional power to act in order to protect nearby (and other) communities from the danger federal prisoners may pose.” Their decision came 3½ years after Comstock — who had been convicted of possessing child pornography, and who had confessed to patronizing child prostitutes while working overseas — was first locked up as sexually dangerous in November 2006. It wasn’t until then that the Justice Department and lawyers appointed to represent the five men started hiring experts to scrutinize the cases in anticipation of trials. That process took another year.

“Things take time,” said former U.S. attorney George Holding. “These men are accused of being a threat to society, and the system has to play itself out.”

It was November 2011 before a judge reviewed Comstock’s case. By then, Comstock was 69 and had already suffered from prostate cancer, a heart attack and a stroke . His hearing in a federal courtroom in Raleigh lasted two days; when it was over, Judge Friedman concluded the government couldn’t show he was dangerous and released him. Comstock moved in with his sister, a college English instructor, in Arkansas. Now, mainly, he tries not to be noticed.

“When I heard about this law, I assumed it was for the most dangerous people, and I assumed it wasn’t me,” Comstock said. “I said I wouldn’t be convicted, and I wasn’t. But it took six years to get there.”

Courts, too, have expressed growing frustration at the delays.